TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Saturday sacked a close aide after he made remarks about sexual minorities that the premier called "outrageous".
The swift move came as public support for the Kishda cabinet continues to fall against a backdrop of unpopular policies and ministerial scandals.
Masayoshi Arai, an elite bureaucrat who until Saturday served as executive secretary to Kishida, told reporters at the prime minister’s office late Friday that he would “not want to live next door” to an LGBT couple and that he does “not even want to look at them”.
He also said during an off-the-record conversation with reporters that if same-sex marriage is introduced in Japan, it would “change the way society is” and “quite a few people would abandon this country”.
Kishida said at a news conference that Arai’s remarks were “completely inconsistent with the policy of the cabinet”, adding, “We have been respecting diversity and realising an inclusive society.”
Arai’s replacement has dealt another blow to the cabinet, for which approval ratings are nearing what is widely seen as the “danger level” of 30% after four ministers resigned over a roughly two-month period last year due to various scandals and gaffes.
The popularity of the Kishida administration has been also decreasing in the face of criticism that his government’s plan of raising taxes to fund a planned expansion of the defence budget has been put forward without first conducting a review of where savings could be made by cutting unnecessary public spending.
Arai, a bureaucrat from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, later apologised and withdrew his comments after the Japanese media made them public. He said the remarks did not reflect Kishida’s own thinking.
Nevertheless, the day after Arai’s comments came to light, Kishida, who recently expressed wariness about introducing same-sex marriage to Japan, decided to replace him. Sadanori Ito, director of the ministry’s personnel division, will take Arai’s post.
Arai’s comments came after Kishida struck a cautious tone at a parliamentary session last week about legally recognising same-sex marriage in line with other Group of Seven states that have already adopted the practice.
“We need to be extremely careful in considering the matter as it could affect the structure of family life in Japan,” Kishida said, amid the filing of several lawsuits across the nation by same-sex couples.
Japan has not legally recognised same-sex marriage as many members of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, led by Kishida, have opposed the concept, emphasising the country’s traditional values such as the role of women in giving birth and raising children.
The 150-day ordinary Diet session began on Jan 23. The latest gaffes about LGBT people will likely prompt left-leaning opposition bloc lawmakers to grill Kishida over his views on family affairs in Japan, political experts said.
Late last year, LGBT issues in Japan drew fresh attention as LDP lawmaker Mio Sugita, the then parliamentary vice minister for internal affairs and communications, was pressured to retract past remarks against sexual minority couples.
Sugita, who was effectively sacked by Kishida in December, came under fire in 2018 for saying in a magazine article that the government should not support sexual minority couples because they cannot bear offspring and thus are not “productive”.
Japan is the only nation in the Group of Seven industrialised countries not to recognise same-sex unions. Its 1947 constitution stipulates that “marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes” and “with the equal rights of husband and wife”.
More than a dozen couples have filed lawsuits in district courts across Japan arguing that the ban on same-sex marriage violates the constitution.
At present, same-sex civil partnerships are recognised at the local level, including in Tokyo. The status does not carry the same rights as marriage, but allows LGBTQ partners to be treated as married couples for some public services in areas such as housing, health and welfare.
In November, a Tokyo court said the country’s failure to legally protect same-sex partners created an “unconstitutional situation” — while ruling that the constitution’s definition of marriage was legal.